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Living with HIV and Riding to End It

By Drew Hazelhurst

I grew up in a fairly small town in Colorado where being gay wasn’t necessarily frowned upon, but people weren’t very stoked on it either. I went to Catholic school through eighth grade, and when I got to high school and was able to express myself through clothing, people made fun of me, called me “fag,” and pushed me around. The fear of coming out was too much as an underclassman, even though I had a lot of friends and an amazing support system.

In 2015, living in Los Angeles, I felt like I was at a great place in my life. One night, I went out with my friends in West Hollywood. If you’ve been there, you’ve seen the bus parked out outside the bars where they give free rapid HIV tests. Walking by with my friends one night, we decided that this was the night we would all give it a try. One by one we went in. My friends all came out quickly after receiving negative results. I didn’t come out for over 30 minutes. 

When you take a rapid HIV test, you get your finger pricked, wait five minutes, and if the dot on the test changes to a certain color, you’ve tested positive for HIV. Mine changed to that color. I was a bit drunk, and with my friends all waiting outside I thought, “Fuck me, what have I done?”

When I walked out of the bus, my friends said I looked like I’d seen a ghost. I told them what happened, and five minutes later, I got a phone call from one of the counselors at the clinic who told me to go in immediately for further testing. It was a Saturday, and I had to wait until Monday to go, but I already knew I had it. 

Through the testing process, everyone I talked to was so kind and helpful. They answered all the questions I had, even though at that point I didn't have many because I was still in shock. I was just beat down. I answered questions about my sexual partners, and whether I was in touch with any of them. Unfortunately, my most recent partners were one night stands, and I didn't have their information. It is an unsettling feeling, not being able to reach out and tell them so that they know. Or maybe they did know and just didn’t tell me? Had they given it to someone else too? I had to wait a week for these results to come back, but as each day passed I became more certain of my results. 

Telling my family and friends was hard. But I was embraced with loving arms, surrounded by people who were ready to help me figure out what happened next. It was odd: once I said it out loud, I felt a sense of relief—now I could focus on what had to come next. I told myself, “I’m not going to let this thing take over my life.” My parents lived through the AIDS crisis—my mom's half brother died from complications related to HIV—and they took it upon themselves to get educated on what has changed and what treatment looks like. 

TREATING AND LIVING WITH HIV

HIV medication can be quite expensive without the proper insurance coverage. I am so blessed that through the majority of my time living with the disease, I have not had to pay for medication. Those who are not so fortunate rely on foundations like the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation to get the help that they need. When I was diagnosed, I was treated at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, another amazing organization that is fighting to end HIV/AIDS. If it weren't for places like this, I would not have received the support, care, and knowledge that I did, and quite frankly I might not be here today. 

That's why I am so committed to supporting these organizations. In the first few years after diagnosis, I focused so much on fixing myself, and that was okay. Now, though, it is time for me to help other people, and that’s why I decided to participate in the AIDS Lifecycle Ride, a seven day, 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. The funds that we raise support services such as HIV testing, prevention, care, and so much more.

THE AIDS LIFECYCLE RIDE

I was terrified when I signed up for the ALC ride. I had a couple of friends that had done the ride in the past but I just kept making excuses, until last year, my fifth year of living with HIV. When I realized I’d turn 30 while on the ride, I thought, “What the hell! This is a milestone!” I was excited to be a part of something bigger than myself and raise awareness for such an amazing cause. I had nerves about fundraising because it would be the first time I let the world know my status and what I’ve been through. The response from my community was amazing, and I felt so much support from family and friends near and far. 

That 2019 ride was a whirlwind. Four friends joined my team, and none of us had a goddamn clue what to expect. The feeling you have on the ride is really hard to explain; you are tired, your ass hurts, and you’re rubbing lube between your legs so you don't chafe, but you are surrounded by so much joy you can't help but smile. People talk about the “love bubble” on the ride. I didn’t really understand what that meant until I got there. No matter what time of day it is, what mood you’re in, there’s always someone there to give you a hug and support you, or ask, “Hey, do you need anything?” Even the people who are handing out food—I never knew buffet-style food slopped on a plate could be an emotional experience. Everyone there is so supportive and encouraging, saying, “Thank you so much for riding!” The love bubble is a very real thing and I’m so blessed to be a part of it. That’s why I signed up for another year.

545 MILES, MINUTES, HOURS...

With the COVID-19 global pandemic, this year’s ride was canceled. It’s a huge bummer, not only for the riders who look forward to this all year long but for those two foundations which rely on the funds raised in order to continue providing life-saving services all year long. As of writing this, we are still about $6.5 million dollars aways from our goal of $13 million, a crucial amount that marks the difference between saving lives or not. To compensate, the ALC has shifted the 545-mile ride to become a digital challenge called My 545 in which participants are asked to log 545 miles, minutes, or hours of an activity done to pass the time while in social isolation. Riding a bike, running, or yoga at home—what matters is the goal: participants are asked to raise at least $545 by May 30th. It may not seem like a lot, but this goes a long way and is put to use in real time. You can take part or support our team by donating here

$5,000 covers a full year of laboratory testing for 11 patients
$500 covers a full year of medical supply costs for 20 clients
$250 provides rapid HIV tests—with results in less than a minute—for 20 clients
$100 provides comprehensive HIV/STI testing for one client

We are going through a crazy time together right now and we need to continue to act to prevent and treat it. We will get through this. We are a community that never gives up.